Word Count, Graded Readers and Fluency has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  The video was first published on November 2013.

I’m sitting in Palm Springs, California. The sun is beating down on me. I’m going to talk about word count, graded readers and how many words we need to speak. It all has to do with this whole issue of word count.

My conclusions, because some of you want the conclusions upfront, is that to speak a language well you need lots of words. If you just want to exchange pleasantries, you can do this with far fewer words. Fluency means speaking a language well; therefore, fluency means knowing a lot of words. Insofar as graded readers and the significance of word count, I find, personally, that I like to work, obviously, with easy, call it sheltered material, for the first few months, but I like to move into meaningful authentic content that’s of interest to me as soon as possible. This depends on the language, but typically within a few months. Those are the conclusions. Now let’s get into the details.

First of all, you’ll notice that I have what looks like dirt underneath my nose. This is because after I left Vancouver a group of people at LingQ decided that they would participate in this Movember Movement, which is sort of a promotion to raise money for men’s health issues, prostate cancer or whatever, and that people involved in this movement will grow a moustache and will be raising money.

So at LingQ we’ve got a team together. We’ve contributed some money, we’re trying to raise money and we’re all growing a moustache. I got a bit of a late start in this, but can assure you that Alex and Nav, in particular Mark, they’re all sporting much more significant growth under their nose than I have so far. Anyway, I’m working here outside without my normal microphone; I hope the sound quality is okay.

Now, the subject of word count comes up all the time. We had a thread at our forum at LingQ, someone was looking for more graded material for Russian on our site. We have a vast library of Russian content, lots of beginner material, lots of intermediate material. We recently obtained permission from Echo of Moscow to put all of their material on our website. I mean you won’t find, not in 10 books, more material than we have at LingQ. Yet, still, this one learner said there’s a gap between the sort of intermediate and upper intermediate. That the statistics at LingQ show him there are over 25% new words in some of the content that he would like to study, can we please fill the gap. This got me thinking. Then other people commented about how nice it is to have graded readers and so forth and so on.

Graded readers or content that suites your interest

Personally, I think it is unrealistic to expect that you can start with very simple material and then very gradually and seamlessly work your way through a lot of graded readers, sheltered text, embedded text and always deal with a very small number of new words. I feel if you did that it would take forever to learn the number of words that you need. That’s why, personally, I’m driven more by my interest in the subject matter and if there’s 30-40% new words so be it, I work my way through it. I do vary this more difficult content with easier stuff, just to give myself a bit of a relief, but there are a few things to remember.

Yes, it’s true that a relatively small number of words accounts for 70-80% of the content in any language. I’m reading a book right now by Steven Pinker about the decline of violence in our society and he mentions in there that five words — I think it was ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘be’, ‘of’ and maybe ‘it’ or something — accounts for like 20% of all content in English, but you can’t say very much with those five words. The problem when you have the top 1,000 words is that it might account for 75% of any content, but you don’t understand much with only those words. So I believe you need quite a large vocabulary.

The good thing about the fact that the most frequent words account for 70-80% of any content is that as you’re pursuing content of interest and acquiring new words at a rather quicker pace, using LinqQ, for example, where you have online dictionaries and words and phrases saved into a database for review and all the rest of it, the advantage is that as you’re pursuing these new words and I’m always motivated at LingQ to increase my known word count, that’s kind of driving me, it forces me to regularly review the most frequent 70% so you’re always going to get enough exposure to those most frequent words.

Graded readers aren’t necessary

I guess the conclusion is, for those people who enjoy graded or sheltered reading, by all means, do what you like to do, but I don’t think it’s a condition of learning. I don’t think it’s necessary. Personally, if I’m going to read Tolstoy, I don’t want to read a dumbed-down, simplified version of Anna Karenina in 20 pages before attacking the full version, but some people do. I don’t have anything against those people. I’m just saying that we should do what we want to, but it shouldn’t be held out as a condition that you must have these graded readers, you must always have no more than 10% unknown words. This may be true when you’re reading away from the computer, but typically, I build up my vocabulary very much using LingQ on the computer, on my iPad, in which case after a few months I’m hitting authentic material.

A related question, sort of the converse of this, is you often hear the statement that with a very small number of words you can actually say a lot. It may be true that with a limited vocabulary, that is active vocabulary, you can express quite a few thoughts. However, if you’re in a meaningful conversation with people, what matters sometimes even more is your ability to understand what they are saying and in order to understand what other people are saying, native speakers, you actually need a large vocabulary.

I can prove this at LingQ. If I go in and grab from our library a transcript of a conversation in whatever language I’m studying, there will always be words there, important words to the conversation, that I don’t understand, that are new to me. So we do need a large vocabulary, a passive vocabulary in my opinion, as sort of a defensive measure in order to be able to understand people in conversations and, of course, movies, books, newspapers, you name it. So I am in favor of working to acquire a large vocabulary. I think the suggestion that we only need a small vocabulary in order to be fluent, I don’t agree.

Then you get these people who say well, the definition of fluent is vague and we don’t know what it means. Again, I don’t agree. I think we know very well what fluent means. Fluent means speaking the language well, proficiently. Now, you can say I speak a certain language quite well, fairly well. That modifies the ‘well’ so it’s less than well. So you can be quite fluent, fairly fluent, but if you say I’m fluent it means I speak the language well. In order to say that you are fluent, in my view, you need a large vocabulary. What’s more, you not only need a large vocabulary, you need a lot of exposure to the culture, the language, the people, to the environment surrounding the language. All of this takes quite a long time.

So to achieve fluency, in other words to speak the language well, takes a long time and requires quite a large vocabulary. In my view, the shortest path to acquiring that vocabulary is not staying in sheltered reading, graded readers and other sort of classroom or specially-prepared-for-the-learner type of content. After a few months, I feel you have to challenge yourself with the real thing. The same as is the case with emersion. Talking to a teacher in a classroom is not emersion. Emersion is getting out there and talking to real people who are going to use a wide range of vocabulary and you need to have as much of that as possible.

So I’ve kind of ranged around this subject dealing with word count, graded readers, embedded reading, how many words you need to be fluent, what fluency means, but it’s all part of the same theme. The language that you are learning is rich and vibrant. There is no shortcut to fluency or being comfortable in this new environment. You have to put in the time and you have to make a certain amount of effort and, at times, that effort might mean stepping out of your comfort zone and moving into the real language environment.

With that, if I can move my curser to where the stop on this thing is. This is a problem. Now, where am I? It’s kind of warm here, there’s more light outside than inside, but I cannot find my curser and so you’ll have to bear with me. I might cut this off at the end, but where did that stupid curser go.